The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples According to the Fourth Gospel

  • Andreas J. Koestenberger
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

Andreas J. Koestenberger, The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples According to the Fourth Gospel. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998. xvi + 271 pp. $30.00 pb.

Evangelical treatments of key themes in the Fourth Gospel are considerably less common than their Synoptic counterparts. Thus, we welcome this contribution by a young Austrian emigre to the United States and associate professor of New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Seminary in North Carolina. This work is a slightly revised version of the author's doctoral dissertation under D. A. Carson at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. It subdivides into five chapters of noticeably unequal length: an eleven-page overview of the subject in recent scholarship; twenty-seven pages that establish linguistic, definitional, and literary foundations for the study; a whopping ninety-six pages on the mission of Jesus; fifty-eight on the mission of the disciples; and twenty-one on implications.

The opening two chapters conclude that previous research has been either too narrow or too broad. Koestenberger prefers to adopt a "semantic field" approach, focusing particularly on terminology, denoting "an activity involving movement from one place to another," and "terms for the task, or the work that one is sent (or has come) to carry out" (pp. 27, 28). His working definition of mission is "the specific task or purpose which a person or group seeks to accomplish, involving various modes of movement, be it sending or being sent, coming and going, ascending and descending, gathering by calling others to follow, or following" (p. 41). He also chooses to focus on the final form of John's text, for the most part eschewing source or tradition criticism.

The bulk of the study occupies chapters 3 and 4. The mission of Jesus is subdivided into his person, task, and charge. Koestenberger stresses the Fourth Gospel's emphasis on the uniqueness of the person of Jesus and the uniqueness of his signs. In an interesting excursus he observes that only six passages in John qualify as signs by the criteria of being public events that are actually labeled as such, bringing glory to God. But he argues that the nonmiraculous "temple cleansing" of John 2:14-17 should be considered the seventh sign, given an indirect identifier in 2:18, and then he sees a neat structure for the seven Johannine signs: three are inaugural (2:1-11, 14-17; 4:46-54), while three are controversial, coming later in the ministry (5:1-15, 6:1-15, chap. 9), with the resurrection of Lazarus in chapter 11 as the climactic sign. Jesus' work involves both revelation and salvation, with the latter more presupposing the notion of substitutionary sacrifice and atonement than actually elaborating it. Additional excursuses in this chapter conclude that there is no consistent theological or linguistic difference between pemp and apostell (the two Johannine words for sending) and survey various other mission terminology relating to sending in the Fourth Gospel (dei, thel ma, hina, and teleio ). Koestenberger concludes that Jesus' mission can be analyzed under three heads: "Jesus the Sent Son," "Jesus the Coming and Returning One," and "Jesus the Eschatological Shepherd-Teacher."

What is significant about the mission of the disciples is that for the most part it does not replicate Jesus' mission. Only 14:12 speaks of disciples doing "works" like their Lord, and the "greater works" here must not be taken as "signs" like the seven Jesus performed, but as the missional activity of the church in the post-resurrection age more generally. The disciples for the most part do not mirror Jesus' incarnation, revelation, or salvation. Rather, they come to Jesus, follow him, are sent out as harvesters and fruit-gatherers into the world with a spirit of love and unity.

Where Koestenberger is going with all of this is to challenge the popular notion among contemporary authors, not least John Stott, of "incarnational mission." Rather, we are given an argument for "representational mission," defined as re-presenting Jesus primarily through witness. In his conclusions Koestenberger also determines that this theme makes the popular understanding of the Johannine community as sectarian unlikely and opts instead for a combination of missionary and edificational purposes for the Gospel.

There is no question that the author's topic has been accompanied by much fuzzy thinking in the recent literature. Koestenberger's work is a model of clarity in methodology and exegesis. The structure of the two large central chapters, particularly chapter 3, could have been presented more clearly had they been broken up into smaller bits and not interrupted by three excursuses. Koestenberger has convincingly shown that missionary activity of disciples, as we moderns tend to think of it, is not a major theme of the Fourth Gospel, which concentrates instead on Jesus' mission, broadly defined. He also rightly stresses that we must always guard against attributing to disciples (then and now) features which were unique to Christ himself. Nevertheless, it is not clear that he has successfully called into question all incarnational models of mission, particularly the more evangelical ones such as represented by Stott. Conceding that "Stott affirms the priority of evangelism [over social action] in the church's mission" (p. 214), it is not clear how Koestenberger's conclusion that "a focus on human service and on human need . . . is not presented in the Fourth Gospel as the primary purpose of either Jesus' or the disciples' mission" (p. 215) in any way challenges the central point of Stott's thinking. Nevertheless, this is an important contribution with which all students of the Johannine literature or of missiology more generally will have to come to grips. The author is to be envied for his mastery of voluminous quantities of German- and English-language literature and for his extremely clear writing in English. Most quotations from German sources are left untranslated. Occasionally, however, Koestenberger translates them himself (e.g., pp. 42, 146), although it is not clear what criteria are involved in this inconsistency. The book is remarkably free from typographic errors; there is one large one in the title of chapter 4 on page viii.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary

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